- Mike Rodak, ESPN Buffalo Bills reporter
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The Buffalo Bills family knew this day was coming, but that didn't make it any easier.
Ralph Wilson, who founded the Bills in 1960 and owned the team for 54 years, died Tuesday at his home in Michigan. He was 95.
Wilson was the third-longest tenured owner in NFL history, behind Chicago's George Halas (63 seasons) and Pittsburgh's Art Rooney (55 seasons).
"A lot of Bills fans have been standing on this cliff for a long time, but for those of us who played for him and knew him, we were hoping it would never come," former Bills special-teams ace Steve Tasker said. "I’m sad. I’m brokenhearted."
Tasker, who played for the Bills from 1986-1997 and was a member of each of their four AFC championship teams, was one of several Bills players who shared their memories Tuesday, hours after Wilson's death.
One of Tasker's teammates, running back Thurman Thomas, stepped to the podium and told reporters he might have been too emotional to take questions.
"I don't know if I'll be able to answer any questions or stay as long as those guys did," Thomas said. "My heart had been heavy the last 24-48 hours [and] with Mr. Wilson passing today, it hurts."
Thomas was noticeably shaken by what has become a difficult time for the Bills. Thomas and teammates Andre Reed and Bruce Smith recently visited quarterback Jim Kelly -- the face of the franchise for 11 Hall of Fame seasons -- who is battling a recurrence of oral cancer.
While the Buffalo community rallies around Kelly and his family, it must now also mourn the loss of Wilson, who brought professional football to the region and kept it there for over five decades.
Wilson was the last surviving member of the "Foolish Club," the group of businessmen who founded the American Football League in late 1959, who still owned his franchise. Barron Hilton, the original owner of the San Diego Chargers, is 86.
Former Bills guard Ruben Brown, a first-round draft pick in 1995 who played nine seasons in Buffalo, gave a passionate speech Tuesday about Wilson's contributions to the region.
"He brought you, Buffalo, an NFL franchise that has been here several, several years. I’m from Lynchburg, Va. -- really Paddington, Va. There’s no football team there," Brown explained. "There’s no pro team where Thurman Thomas can get off work and come over to my high school and inspire me. See what I’m saying? That’s what Ralph Wilson gives Buffalo.
"There’s a professional athlete, there’s a professional business and one of the biggest business in the United States that’s happening right now is NFL football and Ralph Wilson put it in your backyard. And not only did he put it in your backyard, but he kept it."
Yet it wasn't until the 1990 season that Wilson first tasted the Super Bowl. His Bills would lose that game in crushing fashion and also were defeated in the next three Super Bowls, but their success during that era propelled the Bills onto the national stage.
"His thrill about the Super Bowl: I could sense the glow and how proud he was," former head coach Marv Levy recalled Tuesday. "Here's a guy who had come into the beginning of the AFL so many years previously and really had never gotten there until the 1990 season. It wasn't just Ralph Wilson that was going to the Super Bowl; he saw to it that everybody in the organization [went]. He really set an example of total organization wins.
"Not just a great owner, not just a coach or a quarterback, it was total organization. We'd go to those Super Bowls and he took everybody, the security guards, everybody. The people that cleaned up at night, they were part of the Buffalo Bills at the Super Bowl."
The Bills have long been the NFL's underdogs, playing in an outdated stadium and a small market. But Tasker remembered Wilson as a man who was responsible for shaping the current landscape of the NFL, a league that has grown significantly since Wilson's day as an AFL owner.
"Ralph took a lot of criticism here in Buffalo when the team was 0 for the '70s against the Dolphins and we couldn’t get into the playoffs. He took a lot of heat because he wouldn’t spend money and all the things people say about owners everywhere," Tasker said. "I’ll tell you this: The NFL is the 800-pound gorilla of professional sports leagues, and it’s because of men like Ralph Wilson. He’s not the only one. But he’s certainly the template for the kind of man, the kind of leader that has made the NFL the institution on the American landscape that it is."
Tasker became emotional when he remembered Wilson's joy after some of the team's signature wins.
"Occasionally when we’d win a big one, it was great to see what it meant to him. He didn’t fake his joy. He didn’t put on a front of how happy it made him. He didn’t make up any emotions to make it look good for any media or any fan. When the Bills won a big game, it was as if he was the only fan," Tasker said. "And sometimes, in the dark days, maybe he was. But this team mattered to him deeply. For all the criticism, for all the bad years and dark times and back to back 2-14 teams, let me tell you this, it wasn’t because he didn’t care. He cared deeply."
The Bills will hold a memorial for Wilson in the coming days, an event that figures to attract throngs of Bills fans.
It will be a celebration of Wilson's legacy, one that Brown tried to hammer home Tuesday.
"He brought you something to be excited about. He brought you something to root for. He brought you something for you to call your own and make your area, your home unique because he gave that to you," Brown said. "Yeah, there’s no Super Bowl as of late, but I’m sure all of Buffalo fans can be proud of what the Buffalo Bills are -- a tough, gritty team, and Ralph Wilson was that, too."
The Buffalo Bills family knew this day was coming, but that didn't make it any easier.Ralph Wilson, who founded the Bills in 1960 and owned the team for 54 years, died Tuesday at his home in Michigan.